Community-Based Conservation in the Drylands of East and Southern Africa During COVID-19

Mara Goldman
University of Colorado Boulder

Joana Roque de Pinho
University Institute of Lisbon

Angela Kronenburg García
University of Padua

Eduard Gargallo
University Institute of Lisbon

Jona Heita
University of Namibia, Khomasdal

Publication Date: 2022


Our research focused on dryland communities in conservation landscapes in Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania, where tourism and community-based conservation have been adopted as market-based solutions to social and environmental vulnerabilities. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cessation of international tourism and the suspension of most employment related to community-based conservation in the region. These disruptions caused devastating impacts on local livelihoods which had become partly dependent on tourism and conservation-related income to meet household needs.

We partnered with local co-researchers to document the unfolding impacts of COVID-19 on community members in our study sites using qualitative research methods. More specifically, we examined the following research questions: (a) How were people from different demographic groups (e.g., gender, age, income, conservation employment status) affected by the sudden loss of tourism income and cessation of community-based conservation activities? and (b) How did people across these different demographic groups respond to the loss of conservation and tourism benefits?

We found that the pandemic’s effects were unevenly experienced. In Kenya, for example, wealthier community members were able to invest in cattle and profit from pastoralism whereas poorer members struggled to feed their families. Namibia was the lone case in which the government and other organizations implemented measures to support household income. Our diverse findings reveal the value of comparative case studies as well as the need for long-term research to capture the unfolding, quite unpredictable, impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our study also revealed the value and challenge of doing “remote ethnography” in hazards research.


Research was conducted in rural communities near protected areas in three Sub-Saharan African countries with large wildlife populations and substantial tourism industries: Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania. These landscapes are globally recognized for supporting some of the largest remaining herds of migratory and charismatic mega-fauna, alongside famous but marginalized Indigenous communities such as the Maasai (Kenya, Tanzania), the Himba, and Khoisan (Namibia). Indigenous communities in these countries have often suffered loss of land and access to resources because of global conservation interests. A culmination of several overlapping factors led to the creation of community-based conservation endeavors in the 1990s to bring the benefits of conservation to communities, empower communities to be more involved in conservation, and expand conservation coverage beyond national parks (Adams et al., 20041; Adams & Hutton, 20072; McNeely, 19953). Community-based conservation has been promoted globally, and particularly in East and Southern Africa, as a panacea for simultaneously addressing community development needs and conservation.

Communities are said to benefit through employment in tourism (e.g., wildlife tour guiding, dancing for tourists in “cultural villages,” driving tourism vehicles for wildlife viewing, and selling beadwork, baskets, or souvenirs), or as conservation game scouts, through rent payments to communities by tour companies, and bursaries to families for school fees (Kellert et al., 20004; Kothari et al., 20135), through community run ecotourism projects, and conservation projects that pay communities to protect nature through payment for ecosystem services (PES) schemes (Davis & Goldman, 20196; Honey, 20087). As a result, conservation and tourism have come to play a dominant role in local livelihoods and community development across the region, particularly in drylands where wildlife numbers remain high and few alternative livelihood options exist. The existing livelihoods of most residents in the study are based on a mix of livestock herding (cattle and small stock) and small-scale rain-fed crop cultivation combined with some wage labor including from the conservation/tourism sector.

We refer to these areas as “conservation landscapes” to foreground the dominance of conservation (and related tourism) activities in the area in terms of high concentrations of protected areas (state and private), wildlife populations, and livelihoods geared towards conservation and tourism. The COVID-19 pandemic and associated measures to contain it have had a profound effect on these conservation landscapes across the drylands of East and Southern Africa. The health impacts in these areas were initially less extensive than those observed in Europe and North and South America, however, the measures to contain the pandemic were disastrous for many (Simula et al., 20208). When countries around the world closed their borders and suspended international flights and internal mobility to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19, tourism income and conservation economic benefits abruptly stopped flowing into many dryland communities that depend on them. At the same time, these communities were grappling with the compounded effects of other contagion control measures, such as restrictions on local and regional mobility for people and livestock, loss of employment income, closure of food stores, markets, and cross-border trade and previous ongoing political and climatic shocks.

These events raise important questions regarding how members of different communities respond to similar challenges with respect to livelihoods across national boundaries. It also raises specific concerns and new questions regarding the long-term sustainability of community-based conservation for conservation and development. Answering these questions is critical to improve disaster preparedness in dryland communities and beyond and to design new conservation models that contribute to local resilience. Our findings suggests that while the pandemic has had devastating impacts and challenged livelihoods, it has also revealed resilience within communities and created openings to explore new futures.

Our research contributes to hazards literature on community resilience (Davies et al., 20159; Leslie & McCabe, 201310; Moradi et al., 201911), as well as on the various impacts of and the response and adaptation to compound disasters in dryland rural communities (Galvin, 202112; Goldman & Riosmena, 201313). The effects of the pandemic on conservation management have included the loss of personnel to manage wildlife conflict, loss of income, and loss of community benefits associated with tourism. For others, it provided an opportunity to access otherwise restricted grazing areas and increase livestock holdings. We thus stress that local understandings of COVID-19 vary across demographic groups as do abilities to react to them.

Literature Review

Our analysis is framed by a critical political ecology perspective (Forsyth, 200414), which suggests the boundaries between nature and society are no longer tenable and that more attention should be paid to local knowledges and world-making practices (de la Cadena & Blaser, 201815; Goldman, 202016; 201817; Sultana, 202118). Combining this with risks and hazards, we explore how members of dryland communities have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic-related impacts on conservation and tourism, as they exploit opportunities afforded by suddenly altered ecological, political, and socioeconomic conditions.

Political Ecology of Conservation and Disaster

Political ecology is a growing field of study within geography and anthropology that explores the power relations involved in all natural resource management endeavors, and the complex social, ecological, historic, and political processes at play in understanding nature-society relations (Farhana, 202019). This has included a large literature on the impacts of conservation on local communities (Adams & Hutton, 2007, Brockington, 200420). Political ecologists have long exposed the false premises of projects which presented community-based conservation as a supposed panacea for meeting both conservation and development goals (Benjaminsen & Svarstad, 201021). While scholars have shared with these projects a commitment to involving communities more directly in conservation planning and action, they also have critiqued the ways in which community-based conservation activities unfold, including limited community participation in project design and implementation (Goldman, 200322; 201123); unequal distribution of resources within communities (Thompson & Homewood, 200224); and transformations of livelihood strategies, local value systems, and social relations (Brockington et al., 200825; Goldman et al., 201326).

Political ecology scholarship has also been combined with hazards literature to uncover the various forms of resilience to disasters that exist across and within dryland communities (Fernandez-Gimenez et al., 201527; Murphy, 201828). This resilience and associated adaptive capacity (ability to adapt to new changes or challenges) is now being challenged through conservation land use restrictions, fragmentation of landscapes (Goldman & Riosmena, 2013), and increasingly frequent extreme weather events (Roque de Pinho, 202029). A political ecology approach to hazards thus includes a focus on local responses as linked to political-economic and ecological factors at national, regional, and global levels. Local resilience to hazards is seen as shifting and linked to historic processes of change as well as current shocks. An integration of hazards and political ecology is needed to explore the impacts of the novel coronavirus on local level resilience, as linked to global patterns and processes. Scholars in these associated fields have not yet addressed (a) the impacts of an unprecedented disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic and its control measures on conservation-reliant livelihoods in dryland areas, and (b) how community members are responding with different interpretations, knowledges, assets, entitlements, and social capital.

Research published since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic has pointed to the challenges the disease poses for biodiversity conservation (Fletcher et al., 202030; Lindsey et al., 202031). Scholars have argued that the situation is dire enough to usher in a new model of conservation that does not rely on volatile markets and economic valuation of biodiversity (Buscher & Fletcher, 202032). Market-based solutions that seek to incentivize conservation will not be able to protect nature or vulnerable populations from market downturns. Political ecology scholarship suggests that any discussion of new conservation models in the drylands (and elsewhere) should critically investigate the failure and complexities of market approaches, while also being attentive to the voices, knowledge, and needs of local people (Escobar, 199833; Peet & Watts, 200434). There remains a research gap that effectively ties together the insights of political ecology with hazards research on resilience and adaptive capacity to address the impacts of COVID-19 on communities involved with conservation. There is little examination of the multiple and overlapping effects of the pandemic on community-based conservation initiatives or the creative responses by individuals and communities to the sudden stop of tourism income flows. Our project does this by focusing on areas where community-based conservation has been heavily promoted to sustain alternative livelihoods, and where communities have shifted adaptive capacities to compound and multiple overlapping hazards over time (Goldman & Riosmena, 2013; Stavi et al., 202135).

Research Design

We agree with Gaillard and Peek (201936) that building disaster preparedness and recovery efforts on the knowledge and experience of affected communities is not only crucial from both methodological and ethical standpoints, but also leads to better data and policymaking. Therefore, our approach centers on local people’s agency during the ongoing COVID-19 disaster: their creativity, use of historical knowledge, and creation of new knowledge to build resilience and new possible futures for conservation with local people. We have been documenting some of these processes since the pandemic’s early stages by analyzing data regularly sent to us by friends, relatives, and former research assistants who live in several dryland countries and communities (Roque de Pinho et al., 2020; forthcoming37). Methodologically, our study has drawn from participatory action research approaches (Chevalier & Buckles, 201938; Gubrium & Harper, 201339). For example, we have worked closely with and relied upon our local collaborators to conduct fieldwork and structured data collection, as we describe in the next section. However, in some study sites, this approach has entailed many challenges, and we discuss below what we did to circumvent them. This included continuing the research project in an incremental fashion and relying more strongly on remote participatory ethnographic approach we had previously implemented in two of the study sites (see Roque de Pinho, et al. 202040; Roque de Pinho et al., forthcoming).Endnote 1

Research Questions

We developed this study in collaboration with the CONVERGE COVID-19 in African, Asian, and North American Drylands Working Group—a research network including academics and drylands residents in the role of collaborative researchers—which has been investigating, remotely and in a participatory way, how drylands communities in East, West, and Southern Africa, Inner Asia, and the United States are responding to COVID-19 and associated health containment measures. The present study addresses three of the broader research priorities identified by the CONVERGE working group’s research agenda (Roque de Pinho et al., 2020), including: (a) the impacts of COVID-19 containment measures on environmental management and conservation; (b) the differentiated impacts across demographic groups (i.e., gender, age, wealth, ethnicity, education) of COVID-19 and its containment measures; and (c) the varied local understandings of the pandemic.

Specifically, we asked:

  • How were people from different demographic groups (e.g., gender, age, income, conservation employment status) affected by the sudden loss of tourism income and cessation of community-based conservation activities?
  • How did people across these different demographic groups respond to the loss of conservation/tourism benefits and conservation patrols?

Next, we outline the specific study areas and the methods used.

Participatory Remote Ethnography

Our initially proposed research design included conducting semi-structured interviews, relying on local collaborators to conduct them because Covid-19 travel restrictions prevented us from traveling to the field sites. However, this proved to be too big of an ambition in two study sites (explained below), and our research design evolved accordingly. Collaborative researchers faced the challenge of conducting structured interviews when their own movements and livelihoods were restricted because of lockdown measures. With the exception of Jona Heita, our colleague from the University of Namibia, who is an academically trained researcher and was able to go to his field site once the lockdown was lifted, our Kenyan and Tanzanian co-researchers (Stanley ole Neboo and Maimus Toima) have no formal training in research methods nor previous experience conducting their own interviews. They struggled with various constraints related to logistics, positionality, and access (see Table 1).

Table 1. Constraints of Remote Ethnography

Constraints faced by co-researchers in the field Site
Community members refused to complete interviews, finding them too long Kenya
Positionalities within their communities: Formally interviewing family members and close neighbors resulted in co-researchers not being taken as seriously as they would have had they been acting as translators/research assistants to external researchers present in the field (us). This highlights the ways in which power dynamics can both help as well as hinder the interview process. Rural Kenyan communities, parts of Tanzania
Reluctance to spend much of the fieldwork funding (budgeted beforehand) on internet data to send large picture files of the interview guides/questionnaires via phone. Kenya, Tanzania
Under lockdown, co-researchers struggled to travel to towns and to find open cyber cafes to scan and email completed questionnaires back to PIs. Kenya, Tanzania used phone only
The seasonal constraints associated with working with pastoralists in the field, as people (co-researchers and those being interviewed) move seasonally with their cattle and were forced to move more and further after covid restrictions listed as they faced the hardships of a drought. Kenya, Tanzania

Faced with these difficulties, we decided to fall back on the remote and participatory ethnographic approach that we (together with other members of the Covid-19 in Drylands working group) had implemented at the early stages of the pandemic to examine lockdown experiences in the drylands. As we describe elsewhere (Roque de Pinho et al., 2020; forthcoming), this effort involved engaging friends and former research assistants in drylands as our collaborative researchers (co-researchers for short). These are pastoralists, farmers, and urban residents, a few of whom are also activists, students, tour operators and civil servants; and women and men of different ages, most with no formal training in research. Combining Postill’s (201641) remote digital ethnography with participatory research approaches (Chevalier & Buckles, 2019; Gubrium & Harper, 2013), we invited them to take the lead in conducting research in their communities. Co-researchers were guided by a broad set of comparative research topics and encouraged to follow their own research interests and priorities. They used their cell phones to send WhatsApp and text messages, and sometimes email, about their personal experiences of the pandemic and observations of impacts on and responses in their families, neighborhoods and communities. Sometimes they shared responses to targeted interview questions. Data thus included weekly text and audio-messages and images, together with occasional written reports sent by email or WhatsApp.

Study Site Description

Research was conducted in rural communities participating in community-based conservation in semi-arid parts of Namibia, Kenya, and Tanzania. All areas experience variable rainfall spatially and temporally with a high risk of drought. The different sites reflect similar community-based conservation approach that use a conservancy or trust-like model to create a conservation area on community land, with community representatives, game scouts, and tourism activities. There were, however, different levels of tourism investment, income-generating activities, community benefits, COVID-19 containment measures, and government support services. They also presented different sets of challenges to conducting ethnographic research. We do not suggest direct comparisons as in a controlled study, but rather present the findings as three case studies that can be read together to expose similar trends and divergent individual and community responses.


Research was conducted in two conservancies, which are areas of communal lands where local communities manage wildlife, receive an annual quota for trophy and consumption hunting, and can initiate communal tourism enterprises or joint ventures with private partners. All adult residents within a conservancy are automatically members. Elected members of the Conservancy Management Committee are responsible for the implementation of conservation measures, distribution of financial benefits, and coordination of public-private partnerships. Research was conducted in Anabeb and Sesfontein Conservancies in the Kunene region, which is a tourism hot spot region in Namibia.

Anabeb is located in the Kunene region and was established in 2003. It occupies an extension of 1.57 square kilometers and is inhabited by around 1,500 people. Sesfontein is also in the Kunene region and was established in 2003. It is bigger (2.465 square kilometers) and more sparsely populated (1,835 inhabitants). Both Anabeb and Sesfontein are among the highest-earning group of Namibian conservancies. In both conservancies, Herero and Damara are the main ethnic communities, with smaller populations from the Himba ethnic group. The livelihoods of most residents are based on a mix of livestock herding (cattle and small stock) and small-scale crop cultivation. Pensions, wages derived from limited local employment opportunities, and remittances by people working outside the conservancy provide additional income to many households.


In southern Kenya, research was conducted in Koyiaki Group Ranch, located on the eastern outskirts of the Maasai Mara National Reserve (henceforth, Reserve), Narok County. Previously communally owned and managed by a group of Maasai pastoralists (the dominant ethnic group), the group ranch has been subdivided for some time now. Maasai landowners now partly lease their private parcels to private tourism investors and conservation organizations who run and manage six wildlife conservancies on the former Koyiaki Group Ranch. Recognized under the Kenya Wildlife Act 2013, wildlife conservancies are tracts of land managed by individual landowners, groups of owners, or communities for purposes of wildlife conservation and other compatible land uses. For over a decade, conservancies around the Maasai Mara (Olare Motoroki, Naboisho, Nashulai Olerai, and Mara North) have provided economic benefits to local Maasai private landowners in the form of monthly lease payments and community benefits such as school bursaries, and provision of health and education facilities. While relying on these payments, most Maasai landowners combine pastoralism (mostly sheep) with tourism-related jobs and businesses, along with some rain fed cultivation.


Unlike Namibia and Kenya, Tanzania does not have formal community-based conservancies. Research was conducted in northern Tanzania villages around Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks, Manyara Ranch, and Burunge and Rendile Wildlife Management Areas. The Wildlife Management Areas and the Manyara Ranch are comparable to conservancies. Additional informal insights were also gathered from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a state-run conservation area that is meant to include the needs of Maasai pastoralists, wildlife conservation and tourism (but is currently in the process of evicting Maasai, Oakland Institute, 202242). In these areas, Maasai are the dominant ethnic group and were the primary focus of the project due to their active participation in tourism activities. Maasai residents combine livestock production and trade with small-scale rain-fed crop cultivation (mostly beans and maize), gemstone trade, and wage labor. Many are employed in some way with conservation and tourism as guards, at hotels, as drivers, or as game scouts in the Manyara Ranch or at one of the WMAs, while others make money through informal sales of beadwork and dance performances.

Data Collection Methods

Research was approved through the University of Colorado Boulder Institutional Review Board (#20-0716), with the project declared “Exempt, Category 2,” posing minimal, if any, risk to participants. Nonetheless, our co-researchers were made aware of the need to keep information about informants confidential and discussions voluntary. All have previously worked on research projects and were familiar with informed consent and confidentiality procedures. Research began in the Spring of 2021 and continued into the Fall of 2022, with various levels of input across the sites.

We all have longstanding relationships (friendships) with our co-researchers, some as formal research collaborators (such as Jona Heita in Namibia), others as former research assistants. We were already working with them in the context of the Covid-19 working group. As explained above, obtaining sampling frames for random sampling was impossible, and even convenience sampling and interviews close to home posed challenges in Kenya and Tanzania (Table 1). Faced with these limitations, we deepened our participatory remote ethnography approach (Roque de Pinho et al., 2020; forthcoming) and embraced regular dialogue with our co-researchers. Fundamentally, we embraced a more fluid, organic, participatory, and “messy” approach that turned out to be particularly well suited to the pandemic circumstances (Pappagallo & Semplici, 2020).

We redirected our efforts towards ensuring we received more regular updates from the field (via WhatsApp messages, phone calls, photos, and e-mail) and followed their lead about avenues of investigation. We also interviewed our co-researchers in-depth, probing for additional details about information provided in their regular updates. These conversations and updates were sometimes regular (every few days) and sometimes less regular (once every two weeks), due to constantly changing circumstances and challenges in the field (see table 1). Furthermore, we also encouraged the participation of co-researchers in our weekly COVID-19 Working Group meetings to present findings and answer questions in collaborative data analysis sessions. This happened again on average every two months. In addition, they also participated actively in an international virtual online conference featuring pastoralists from Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, and Kenya. Phone interviews with them and their online presentations allowed for triangulating information, probing for details, and their own analytical insights. In Namibia, the interviews proceeded as outlined in the original proposal. Questions followed topics agreed on by the research group, though interviewees were encouraged to introduce issues they found relevant for themselves or their area.


Research proceeded as planned with the co-researcher in this site also being based at the University and well trained in leading research projects. He completed more than 25 in-depth, semi-structured interviews in both conservancies with ordinary conservancy members and some Management Committee members. Key informant interviews were also conducted two with conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the capital city Windhoek.


Two co-researchers: (1) a man living in rural community (henceforward “co-researcher 1”); and (2) a woman living in a peri-urban center, collected data in their respective areas of residence (henceforward “co-researcher 2”): Mpuaai, a small rural community on the border of the Reserve; and Talek, an urban center at the entrance of the Reserve. Joana Roque de Pinho, one of the co-authors on this report, has known the co-researchers since working together on a participatory documentary in 2011. Joana started collaborating with them both as part of the Covid-19 in drylands working group participatory study.

In this project, co-researcher 1 was in charge of conducting 30 semi-structured interviews. When his fieldwork started, many of the restrictions to mobility had been lifted and he had trouble finding people available for interviews as people (himself included) were busy rebuilding their livelihoods. In total, he conducted one full interview and four incomplete interviews with members of his rural area. Efforts were then redirected towards him sharing more of his personal experience as a pastoralist who had lost his tourism business and documenting his observations and informal conversations of other members of his community. This was done through weekly Whatsapp updates, in-depth phone interviews, and three online presentations to the working group. In addition, a Maasai young woman who is also a member of the working group, was later invited to be part of this project. She contributed her own experience and observations (also through WhatsApp updates), adding a much-needed female perspective to the process, and gave four presentations to the working group.

Data collection also included Joana Roque de Pinho conducting multiple phone interviews with both co-researchers. These interviews aimed to clarify parts of their messages and verify details. They also allowed for collecting thick data on their personal lockdown experiences (their lives before the lockdown, their losses, their feelings, and their hopes for the future), which helped understand how experiences were shaped by differential access to land, livestock, and social capital, and, ultimately, gender. Co-researcher 1 is a well-connected rural male livestock owner and Conservancy member whereas co-researcher 2 is an urban, stockless, landless, divorced mother of three lacking extended family support. These interviews also explored their personal observations on the impacts and responses experienced by other people within their communities (again, reflecting a gendered perspective), adding details to the content of their WhatsApp messages.


In Tanzania, the principal investigator Mara Jill Goldman, was in regular contact with the co-researcher (whom she has known for twenty years), along with additional friends throughout the study area, through WhatsApp messages, phone calls, and email. This allowed her to document reactions and responses to the situation from people in Ngorongoro Conservation Area as well as additional villages around Tarangire National Park, and of Maasai youth from these areas working in Arusha city. Like in Kenya, these data included individual responses and feelings as well as insights on community reactions. In addition, the co-researcher and one other individual supervised by the co-researcher interviewed 17 individuals, including five wildlife rangers from the community, and conducted two group interviews on wildlife conflict (two groups of five, one comprised of men, the other of women).

Data Analysis

The case-study leads analyzed the data from their respective study sites, conducting thematic analyses. The analyzed research material includes short social media text messages, transcribed audio messages, transcripts of phone interviews with co-researchers, memos, transcripts of online presentations and images (photos and videos taken by the co-researchers), and emailed documents of interviews and personal observations. We also analyzed questionnaire data from Namibia. Data was analyzed individually by looking for common themes as well as surprising finds. Sometimes the new findings led to additional interviews and conversations (i.e., in the case of increased wildlife conflicts). Data analysis was done keeping in mind the common set of research questions agreed on by the research team.

Researcher Positionality, Reciprocity, and Other Ethical Considerations

Researcher positionality in this project has been complex as it includes ongoing negotiations between researchers in Europe and the United States as well as the co-researchers in the field. The struggles faced by co-researchers as outlined in Table 1 highlight the ongoing challenge of changing research power dynamics to really allow for those on the ground to take the lead in research and destabilize historical researcher-subject hierarchies. The positionality of the co-researchers as members of the community often meant that they were not taken seriously as researchers, while our positionality as senior researchers mostly based in the Global North meant that our attempts at conversation with our co-researchers were often mistaken as formal rules and interview questions. We have worked to overcome this hierarchical imbalance by welcoming co-researchers to weekly meetings. We are also providing co-researchers with other opportunities to move forward in research positions, particularly through a recently funded project on the broader social impacts of COVID-19 in the drylands. All co-researchers are offered the option to co-author this project’s publications and presentations. This is already happening with the Kenya case study, in which co-authored outputs rely strongly on both co-researchers’ analyses of the linkages between various key factors. We see this as a necessary form of reciprocity and do it in recognition of their critical contributions to data collection and analysis. We will work closely with co-researchers in each locality to find the best way to give back to the communities. Other ethical questions that we have begun to discuss as a team include how best to disseminate findings within and beyond our group and how to work with conservation agencies and NGOs to share frustrations and suggestions from the communities. See Appendix for research dissemination and outputs.


Restrictions enacted to contain COVID-19 led to the cessation of all tourism and reduced conservation- and tourism-related income flows and other economic benefits to communities. Across all three study sites we observed and analyzed the following topics: the strength of local institutions (cultural and institutional); the ability of the affected members of the population to diversify into alternative livelihoods or reinvestment in old ones (e.g., gardens, charcoal production, livestock buying); the short-term efficacy and long-term sustainability of these alternative livelihoods;; the increased level of human-wildlife conflict; and the ability of affected people to “get by.”

Our preliminary findings suggest unequal vulnerabilities to risk and different levels of resilience within each site along lines of gender, position within society, involvement in tourism, access to resources, social networks, and cultural institutions. State-managed protected areas including the Namibian national parks, the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Manyara Ranch, and Ngorongoro Conservation kept most of their staff employed during COVID-19. Conservancies in Maasailand and Namibia and tourist camps and cultural centers in Tanzania, however, closed. After the tourists left, facilities were shut down, companies paid only a fraction of lease payments, staff were laid off, and families lost a major source of income. In Tanzania, an additional cause of employment loss was the reduction in NGO staff and game scouts. Whereas in Kenya, households which depended on jobs in small scale Maasai tour operations lost most of their income. Some pastoralists in rural areas in Kenya with assets (cattle, urban plots, cars) were able to invest in cattle and rediscover the virtues of pastoralism under lockdown conditions. In Tanzania, on the other hand, cattle prices fell as nearly everyone tried to sell cattle to buy food to feed their families due to lost income from tourism. Additionally, with constraints on mobility, market closures, and fears of contagion, many were unable to practice pastoralism as they knew how. These findings suggest that the sudden interruption of community-based conservation activities across dryland communities was devastating for many, while, at the same time, it enabled some wealthier members in society to deepen their pastoralist practices. This was the case in the Maasai Mara (Kenya), where conservancy management committees granted local pastoralist access to pastures within the conservancies, in return for no longer paying Maasai landowners the full lease payments for conservation.

These general findings materialized across our three case studies. Below we explore in more detail three specific themes which emerged from these general patterns.

Community-Based Conservation Beneficiaries Are Highly Vulnerable to Market Downturns

Our first major theme that we identified in all three cases is that community-based conservation is a risky market-based solution that over-relies on international tourism and leaves vulnerable people exposed to market downturns caused by emergencies. Our preliminary data shows that with variation across the study areas, people in general suffered from the loss of financial income that came with the cessation of international tourism. In Tanzania and Kenya, people returned home with no income to pay for food or send their children to school. In Namibia, government support helped many get by (as we discuss further below in the second theme). Attempts by the government to promote domestic tourism to take the place of missing international tourists, however, fell flat. International tourists pay higher rates and more money on-site than Namibians, who tend to travel only on specific holidays. To reduce dependence on tourism-related incomes, conservancies started promoting household gardens, cultivation, and livestock. Importantly, this is not a significant break with the past, as conservation programs were already supporting small-scale agricultural projects and most conservancy residents are farmers and/or herders. It does, however, show organizational and community interest in diversifying livelihood options. Environmental and climatic conditions in arid or semi-arid lands make agricultural intensification difficult, as the recent cycle of drought exemplifies. Residents viewed gardening or goat herding more as survival strategies to cope with the present crisis than as alternative sources of income capable of replacing salaries and benefits derived from tourism in the long-term. Up to now, the fall in tourism revenue led to a restriction in the sources of livelihoods rather than to diversification.

In Kenya, while all conservation tourism workers were sent home, the most vulnerable members of communities suffered much more because they had few resources and assets (land, livestock, cars, urban plots) to fall back on in the absence of tourism related income, and conservation-based lease payments to landowners in the conservancies. The closure of cultural bomas (i.e., cultural tourism sites designed to reflect traditional Maasai homesteads) and income loss proved devastating for women who suffered loss of financial independence and social isolation. This was particularly the case in peri-urban areas where single women have few livestock and other assets. In Tanzania, as the pandemic hit and tourism came to a standstill, many people were sent home from their formal tourism-related jobs as tour guides, drivers, hotel staff, and campsite managers. There were also numerous informal workers, such as young Maasai men and women who sing and sell handicrafts to tourists at the several cultural bomas in the area who were sent home after all tourist operations were forced to close. This left many in Kenya, women in particular, with no source of income at all; complaining that COVID-19 made them “very poor.” For some, particularly those with formal jobs, this meant removing their children from English language private schools. When schools began to reopen, tourism did not return right away, so there was a need to look for openings in public schools, involving complex negotiations and bribes. For many women, the situation was even more dire, similar to Kenya. Women who relied on money from tourists at the cultural bomas had no outlets to sell their beadwork. As a last resort, many started to “ruin the environment,” according to the co-researcher, cutting down trees to sell firewood and make and sell charcoal. Ironically, some sold charcoal to local hotels that had remained open with limited workers.

Livelihood Alternatives Are Mediated by Wealth

Our second major theme that emerged was a recognition that conservation can both constrain and enable livelihood alternatives. In addition, we noted how residents’ ability to enact these alternatives is unequal and stratified by wealth. In communities around the Maasai Mara in Kenya, for example, dominant conservation practices had resulted in large stretches of land being protected from development and left open for wildlife. Many rural families took advantage of reduced conservation presence to utilize these spaces for livestock grazing and Maasai cultural practices. Men held traditional meat camps, sometimes on conservancy land, to eat meat, drink herbs, and fortify their bodies. The relaxation of grazing restrictions, led to pastoralist families grazing their herds more freely and an increase in production of cattle products (milk, meat, fat) for food, barter. With food and livestock markets forcefully closed by the Government, Maasai men established illegal “bush markets”, hidden away, to trade animals within Narok County and beyond.

A few months into the pandemic, those pastoralists who owned assets (cars and urban plots) used them to invest in more cattle. Livestock trading became men’s principal occupation, focused on increasing herd sizes, changing breeds, and achieving a faster production of calves and milk. Maasai elders, a source of cultural and pastoral knowledge, felt vindicated by this return to the importance of livestock, and younger men expressed pride in navigating the pandemic without external support.

This ability to capitalize on livestock in the absence of conservation and tourism was not evenly distributed. There were a set of favorable circumstances possibly unique to the Maasai Mara: the best rains in two decades; a concomitant abundance of pastures, allowing herders to bypass mobility restrictions; children’s free herding labor, as they were home from school; and another virus, the Blue Tongue Virus of sheep, acting as an incentive to invest in cattle. The most important factor favoring pastoralist was the newly granted free access to pastures inside the conservancies. Without income from tourism, conservancies could no longer pay full lease payments to Maasai landowners. As a compromise, they agreed to have livestock graze on conservancy land. Providing further incentives and advantages to pastoralists, the largest Kenyan dairy company started purchasing milk from Maasai households in May 2020, driving up the demand for milk-producing cows. This enriched rural Maasai women (usually responsible for selling milk) and local families by providing them with income larger than that ever provided by tourism. As a result, reopened livestock markets boomed, with the highest prices ever for both sheep and cattle in December 2020.

In contrast, the experience of urban, landless individuals with no livestock—including one of the co-researchers, who is also a divorced mother of three, no longer supported by her ex-husband or her father—demonstrates how the pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities. Facing limited economic opportunities, these households underwent increases in food insecurity, malnutrition and mental distress. These individuals attempted to learn skills via YouTube farming tutorials and started WhatsApp-based businesses. Other unemployed women started horticultural farms and catering businesses.

In June 2021, tourism officially resumed in Kenya and National Reserve Game rangers started to constrain livestock grazing inside the Reserve, showing the precarious nature of the rise in livestock production as a coping mechanism. With the prospect of renewed restrictions on livestock grazing, negotiations started amongst Maasai landowners, tourism investors, conservancy managers, and NGOs. Some Maasai landowners, anticipating conflicts with conservation policies, began swapping their land inside conservancies for land outside. This suggests the contradictions inherent in presenting conservation as an alternative livelihood. On the one hand, conservation enabled the maintenance of pasture, yet when conservation and tourism are functioning those pastures are highly policed and local use for grazing is restricted. The pandemic loosened the restrictions and thus grazing occurred inside conservation areas raising local desires to keep that access open. Now, however, the conservationist tone has toughened, and livestock are again being evicted from the Reserve and Conservancies. Moreover, conservancy members must subject themselves to a census of all their animals, while non-members are no longer allowed to graze in the Conservancies. Tourism investors have threatened Maasai landowners with ceasing lease payments if they do not comply with restrictions.

In Tanzania, we did not see the same sort of rise in livestock keeping in the absence of tourism. On the contrary, people complained that the lack of tourists and reduced patrols in the national parks and conservation areas led to an increase in predation on livestock and crop raiding by wildlife, and thus a further blow to their livelihoods. Wildlife came closer to homesteads, while the NGOs that have been working to help mitigate these issues by providing wire fences (to prevent hyena attacks in particular) were absent and without money because of COVID-19. The increase in wildlife around people’s homes and farms was attributed to the reduced mobility of people and livestock enforced at the beginning of COVID-19. As livestock were prevented from moving in 2020, and because the villages are surrounded by conservation areas, wildlife numbers increased along with closed bush areas because of lack of livestock grazing. These factors reduced the ability for people to cope with the loss of tourism money through livestock keeping, further deepening the economic impacts of the loss of tourism.

An additional environmental impact discussed in Tanzania was a rise in poaching, both in terms of illegally cutting trees and killing animals, due to limited patrols. There was also a reduction in environmental management more broadly as environment committees were not able to meet or patrol village lands and seminars held by local NGOs on environmental management were halted.

Safety Nets and Good Governance Needed for Resilience

Strong social and economic safety nets along with good governance are needed to help vulnerable people within communities survive natural-social hazards. The Namibia case highlights that with substantial outside support from both governmental and non-governmental sources, communities stand a better chance of getting through natural-social hazards, particularly when related to shocks to international markets. While the study communities in Namibia did not have the capacity to capitalize on already existing assets as we saw in Kenya, they did have a stronger support system in place. With a well-developed tourist industry, a reasonably well-managed community-based conservation program, and a strong state social infrastructure system, the impact of COVID-19 and the disappearance of tourism revenue in Namibia did not have as many negative consequences as in the other research sites. Conservation infrastructure and services did not collapse and continued to provide some support to residents. Donor funding assisted in the maintenance of core activities and the government provided grants to conservancies, individuals, and households.

Similar government-based support did not exist in Tanzania and Kenya, though both places have started to see the return of tourism. In Tanzania, tourists returned in October, hotels and cultural bomas re-opened. It remains to be seen how many people will regain employment, how many tourists will come, and if the alternative livelihoods related to charcoal and firewood will continue. In Kenya, on the other hand, negotiations between conservation organizations, tour companies, and local communities over the future of grazing and conservation activities in the area are ongoing.


Our research illustrates several important conclusions and the need for ongoing research. First, despite the many challenges, an extremely valuable aspect of this project has been how deeply involved our co-researchers became in leading the research process in their own time and enthusiastically reporting to us on the project’s research topics and emerging developments. We contend that our experience with remote methods can inform future hazards research projects. Namely, we found that formal methods such as conducting structured interviews do not work well remotely. Although it is possible to not “be there” and delegate formal data collection activities to local field assistants, we found it does not work in practice. Instead, participatory remote research, in which local collaborators were entrusted with authority over the research processes, showed promise. This suggests the value in participatory remote ethnography as a more formal research tool (Roque de Pinho, et al. forthcoming).

Ultimately, our research illustrates the contentious process of doing remote ethnography, showing that it is possible, but not easy nor predictable. This has real implications for practice as much hazards research continues to be conducted remotely due to ongoing pandemic concerns. Remaining flexible, having continual and open communication with funders and co- researchers on the ground, and having funds available as they are needed are key takeaways from our work.

Secondly, our research has highlighted the dangers of relying on international tourism and outside support for rural dryland communities. We have shown that when tourism is promoted as the catchall solution to combat rural poverty while simultaneously promoting conservation, the outcomes can be devastating to both people and conservation when tourism disappears. This is perhaps most evident in the Tanzania case, which saw a rise in poaching and charcoal production, but also in Kenya, where many rural Maasai are now considering leaving conservancies for alternative livelihoods. Additionally, the Namibian case illustrates that the prospect of reducing “overreliance on international tourism to support conservation” by fostering domestic tourism (Lindsey et al., 2020, pp. 1305, 1308) is also problematic.

Thirdly, in line with other studies on the global impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, our research shows the uneven ways in which the impacts of COVID-19 and the measures used to contain it play out in communities. While some individuals have been able to survive and even thrive, others have suffered tremendously. Finally, our research illustrates the resilience of dryland communities and their ability to rebuild livelihoods while musing about possible futures. Yet, in Kenya, we are also starting to see a local inability to control post-pandemic recovery processes based on pastoralism as externally controlled conservation and tourism activities resume and conservation organizations re-impose pre-pandemic restrictions on land use and pastoralism. Kenyan Maasai hopes for a more pastoral post-pandemic future are currently being thwarted, while an unseasonable drought added pressure to livestock subsistence and local livelihoods for Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai.

Endnote 1: Research on broader impacts of and responses to the pandemic, beyond impacts on conservation, was initiated in the context of the Covid-19 in African, Asian and North American Drylands Working Group, funded by CONVERGE and the Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado-Boulder:


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Suggested Citation:

Goldman, J. M., Roque de Pinho, J., Kronenburg García, A., Gargallo, E., & Heita, J. (2022). Community-Based Conservation in the Drylands of East and Southern Africa During COVID-19 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 341). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.

Goldman, J. M., Roque de Pinho, J., Kronenburg García, A., Gargallo, E., & Heita, J. (2022). Community-Based Conservation in the Drylands of East and Southern Africa During COVID-19 (Natural Hazards Center Quick Response Research Report Series, Report 341). Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder.